Friday, September 2, 2011

Tunie Dufour, of the Dauphine Dufours'

(Written 15 November 2010)

The skies above the Jewel of the Crescent are draped in cloudy shrouds on this particular Sunday night in mid November. Refracting the lights of the street, the fabric of the overcast is lightly studded in shades of sodium coral, neon blue, and amber, giving the appearance of approaching Carnival as seen through Comus' regal cape. Below, the streets and rues of the city enjoy a rare calm as the chill of fall rises from the ground; tangible ghosts of the swamps which owned this city for centuries before Bienville's boot hit soil. The perfumes of slow decay and the retreat of bracing greens beneath sacrificial browns are aromas best carried on cooler winds that shun the warmer odors of cafe au lait and lighted hickory.
On the banquette by Washington Square, the gentle padding of Miss Dufour is amplified by the noisy rug of dusty leaves through which she plods. With the unique sensibilities of a native Orleanian, she has dressed for the weather by donning a knitted cap and scarf and flannel slippers to compliment her simple sleeveless cotton housedress and thin cardigan sweater. Behind her she drags a wire laundry cart bearing the weight the week's groceries that squeaks along in devil's fifths and irritates the neighborhood cats. Matassa's market gets further and further away each winter, but still she keeps to her routine. There are closer stores, but she's always shopped at Matassa's--its tradition.

This neighborhood, this street called Dauphine, and all that has been here for over 80 years is emblazoned in Tunie Dufour's memory. She is of that lost, lamented generation who knew the meanings of Creole resourcefulness, self-dependence, and true Orleanian pride. Though time, prejudices, and the feckless abuses of youth have chipped away at the foundations, she retains the gracious charms of Deep Southern gentility as best she can. Despite her meager appearance and the dowager's hump which stoops her posture, she still carries herself with a legacy of the fine upstanding old-line families which once held sway over the entire Crescent. Her people made a world in Dauphine Street and the faubourg for decades, going back to the original grants from Bernard Marigny himself. Now, their works and their lives are to be found only in an odd double story shotgun with a sole curator.

So much history remains alive in Tunie's mind and in her home, her refuge stands alone against the plague of youthful indifference. How fitting that Miss Dufour's house sits on the corner of St. Roch. Crossing Elysian Fields in the iridium green of the traffic LED's, Miss Dufour's mind flips quickly through the dozens of events that have happened at this corner. That Carnival in 1946 when a float got clipped by a streetcar and how the foresight of the riders to bring libations turned an accident into a party...the year they tore up the streetcar rails to make way for the modern busses...the horrible night in April of '64 when her niece's daughter was run down by a car full of drunken Ole Miss boys... Every excursion outside her house is a panoply of memories; the blessed curse of a long and eventful life. Its a curse Orleanians aspire to know until they receive its burden. In Miss Dufour's case, the burden is worth the joy of knowing, even as her scope grows thinner by the season. The cousins and half-cousins, the real and honorary uncles and aunties, the siblings and the adopted family friends who populate her reveries are nearly all gone now. Where once she can recall a time where every door from Frenchmen to the tracks housed a trusted member of her family, now she knows only three people in the same span. Their times are also growing closer. Children and grandchildren of her cousins watch out for her when they can, but time is wearing away at that small network of support. Miss Dufour knows this in her heart; her proud Creole heart that remembers all.

Approaching the first 2400 block of Dauphine and nearly home, she catches a whiff of chicken fricassee and flashes back to the day she met Jerry & Patrick. That Bennett fellow had just sold the house next door to Tunie's in 2004. The house had belonged to Tunie's little sister Euralie until she passed away in '02. The old woman's face winces at the thought. With Euralie's death, Tunie became the last of the Dauphine Dufour's, leaving her to carry on alone and remember everything. Reprimanding herself with a little slap to her thigh, she recalls how silly she was to have been so--so--so 'twee', as her Uncle Timothy was wont to utter in his Irish Channel way, upon meeting Her Boys. She didn't want to like either one of them at first. They were taking over Euralie's house, the house Tunie had helped her buy. She knew in an instant what they were, too. Her cousin Milton had been a star at the My-O-My Lounge, and a Queen of the Krewe of Yuga. They were 'ginny wimmen", 'nancy boys', what she & Euralie used to call 'light in the loafers.' But they were so welcoming, and when Jerry wanted to know all about the house and her history...her heart melted. Patrick made chicken fricassee that evening, and they talked over two bottles of her precious muscadine wine well past midnight. Before she knows it, a large smile has broken out across her face, putting her dentures in peril of the pavement. "Tunie honey, is that you?" A well-pitched tenor voice floats to her ears above the cracquelaire pavement beneath her slippers. A tall blonde figure bounds down from the steps, tossing aside a broom. The man strides up the banquette in strong gait, his hair catching the porchlights as he draws nearer. Entering the coral glow of the streetlamp, he smiles and admonishes
"I'll get that, why didn't you call us to tell us you needed a ride?"

"I've been makin' groceries at Matassa's for years, boy. Its just up the street."

"Twenty-six blocks round trip is not 'just up the street' its a mini-marathon, Wilma Rudolph."

Taking the creaking basket from her Jerry walks with Miss Dufour past his stoop to hers, pulls out his key and opens her storm and French doors. With a single heft he pulls the groceries inside and flicks on the lights for his friend and neighbor. As she makes her way up each step with a creaky knee demanding attention, she watches Jerry fly towards the back of the house and the kitchen, reminding her of her own son at that age--the last time she saw him. Clearing the doorjamb, the faded scents of White Shoulders and camphor bring her back to the present in time to hear Patrick call across the walkway through their adjoining windows "Tunie, bring over some of your muscadine wine--Jerry drank the last of ours."
"Like I didn't have help" Jerry shouts, switching off the lights in the now-ordered kitchen. 

"Paddy made your fricassee tonight, and don't forget you promised to tell us that story about Euralie & Louis Armstrong--oh, and there's a new Peggy Scott special on 'YES. Come over whenever you're ready, door's open." A quick kiss on her forehead and out he sweeps, a cheerful breeze of fabric softener in his wake.

Alone again, she stops for a moment and realizes that the parade of yesterdays has evaporated, like celluloid against the brightness of an incandescent bulb. This is a new moment, a new memory being created. How funny, she thinks, to be at the age where one can recognize the birth of another story. Calm, quiet, and still for the first time in weeks, Miss Dufour takes a deep breath, checks her dentures, and collects a bottle of muscadine under each arm. Throwing open her weathered French doors to the brisk, she descends each concrete step to go see The Boys...where Euralie used to live.

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